In 1920, behaviorist John Watson and his graduate student-turned-wife Rosalie Rayner conducted a conditioning experiment that everyone who’s ever taken an intro psychology course knows all too well: They taught 9-month-old Albert to fear a variety of stimuli that were seemingly innocuous to him from the start.
The most famous example involved a rat. When a rat was first placed alongside Little Albert, he appeared interested and unafraid. When the researchers paired the rat with a loud noise, over time, Albert got scared.
In fact, Albert would start crying at the mere sight of the rat, even though the noise was gone. It turned out that Albert’s newfound fear also extended beyond the rat. He started fearing other furry objects.
Watson used this experiment to substantiate his theory that babies were blank states, and the environment was powerful in influencing them. This experiment was always considered controversial, and many psychologists were curious if Albert’s learned fears continued into adulthood. (That’s because Watson and Rayner never deconditioned him.)
But no one knew Little Albert’s identify or his fate… until a few years ago.
According to a 2010 article in Monitor on Psychology, for seven years, Hall P. Beck, Ph.D, a psychologist from Appalachian State University, along with his colleagues and students, scoured historical documents and consulted facial recognition specialists. They even met with the family of the boy they believed was really Little Albert. Finally, they confirmed that Little Albert was Douglas Merritte, the son of Arvilla Merritte, a wetnurse at a campus hospital.
Eventually, the pieces of the puzzle came together. The attributes of Douglas and his mother matched virtually everything that was known about Albert and his mother. Like Albert’s mother, Douglas’s mother worked at a pediatric hospital on campus called the Harriet Lane Home. Like Albert, Douglas was a white male who left the home in the early 1920s and was born at the same time of year as Albert. What’s more, a comparison of a picture of Albert with Douglas’ portrait revealed facial similarities.
Sadly, Douglas passed away at six years old from hydrocephalus. Known as “water in the brain,” hydrocephalus is an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain’s cavities.
But that’s not the only information researchers dug up — and this new info questions the very findings of Watson’s experiment (not to mention his integrity). Watson always claimed that Little Albert was a healthy and normal baby. However, when researchers discovered how Douglas died, questions arose about his supposed good health.
According to a paper published in January 2012, in the journal History of Psychology, when watching Watson’s experiment footage, researchers noticed that Douglas seemed to have behavioral and neurological deficits. After getting hold of his medical records, they learned that Douglas suffered from a variety of medical conditions: congenital obstructive hydrocephalus, iatrogenic streptococcal meningitis/ventriculitis and retinal and optic nerve atrophy. At the time of the experiment, Douglas was relatively stable.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent article on the new findings written by science writer Tom Bartlett. Little Albert’s condition has important implications for Watson’s experiment. As Bartlett points out: “If the baby indeed had a severe cognitive deficit, then his reactions to the white rat or the dog or the monkey may not have been typical — certainly reaching universal conclusions about human nature based on his reactions wouldn’t make sense.”
Watson also likely knew about Douglas’s condition, but of course went through with the experiment anyway.